In the most stunning move to their seven-year history, the Washington Diplomats have purchased Johan Cruyff, considered by many experts to be the world's best soccer player, from the Los Angeles Aztecs for $1 million.
Cruyff, 32 will be introduced as a Diplomat at a press conference here today by Madison Square Garden President David (Sonny) Werblin, who was the moving force in the deal bringing the Dutch World Cup star to Washington.
Although details of Cruyff's contract were not released, it was learned that he has signed a three year contract worth about $1.5 million.
Arriving at the Four Seasons Hotel last night, Cruyff said he was delighted to be in Washington and added that he plans to finish his career here.
"There were financial problems in Los Angeles and that necessitated some kind of a move," he said. "I knew they were going to sell the club. I'm glad if I had to move that it is here. Trying to make soccer successful in the national capital will be a challenge. I like challenges, that's what makes the game fun."
The Aztecs played the Diplomats three times last season and all were rough games. In fact, Cruyff accused the Diplomats of dirty play after one of the matchups.
"It's no problem, it's all part of the game," Cruyff said. "One day you're apponents, the next day you're teammates. We will get along just fine."
Cruyff said he envisions his role with the Diplomats as being much the same as it was in Los Angeles field general and leader in the field and major public relations cog off the field. "We need to get everyone involved in soccer here," he said. "The whole community must be talking soccer."
Cruyff said his three-year pact was actually a one-year contract with options for two more years. "This way if I want to continue, I can," he said. "But if I stop enjoying soccer, I can stop playing. I hope to be here three years. This is where I will finish my career."
The total deal, purchase price and the salary Cruyff will be paid by Madison Square Garden, owners of the Diplomats, makes this one of the three most expensive financial deals in NASL history.
"It rates right up there with the Comos purchasing Pele and (Franz) Beckenbauer" one leauge source said. "Nothing else is even close."
Werblin; Jack Krumpe. Madison Square Garden vice president, and Steve Danzansky, Diplomat president, have been working on the deal for the last month. With Werblin suffering from the flu, Krumpe and Danzansky flew to Los Angeles this weekend to conclude the deal.
According to Werblin, the idea of geeting Cruvff was first put to him earlier this winter when Los Angeles co-owner Alan Rothenberg, casually mentioned that he and his partner, Larry Friend were thinking of selling the team.
"I told him that if he decided to sell the team to call me first because I would be interested in buying Cruyff," Werblin said yesterday. "A couple of weeks later he called and said they were selling the team and were we really interested in Cruyff. I said absolutely."
That started negotiations. One stumbling block was convincing Cruyff, who came out of retirement last year to join the Aztecs, that he would be happy playing in Washington. That was one reason Krumpe and Danzansky flew west -- to convince Cruyff that he would be happy in Washington.
The other question was Werblin's willingness to spend the kind of money necessary to get Cruyff. He, Pele and Beckenbauer generally are considered the three best soccer players ever.
Last August, after Cruyff single-handedly had eliminated the Dips from the playoffs, Werblin stood in the Washington locker room and declared, "Washington doesn't deserve a superstar," noting that a crowd of only 15,000 had shown up that day to see Cruyff play for Los Angeles.
"When you have apples you like apples," Werblin said yesterday. "When you don't have them you don't like them and you tend to say you don't need them, either."
Club sources said yesterday that it took some convincing before Werblin decided to go all out to get the apples. "I think it's taken Sonny a year to really understand Washington," one team source said yesterday. "He realizes now this isn't Minnesota, that Washington is a lot like New York. You have to have the names."
Or, as General Manager Andy Dolich put it, "if you're going to bat with the big guys, you want the guy with the biggest bat on your side. We just got outselves a soccer '10'."
Indeed. Cruyff is to soccer fans what Bo Derek is to men. At 5-foot-9, 150 pounds, he dominates any game he is in with playmaking abilities.
"Pete was magic at 35," Diplomat defender Robert Iarusci said. "But Cruyff, he is something else, something different. He's beyond belief. It's tempting when you're playing against him just stand back and watch."
Cruyff's abilities never were more evident than in last year's playoffs. With the Dips and Aztecs in overtime, 3-3, Cruyff picked up a loose ball at midfield and loped forward with it. Before he had finished he had gone through four Diplomat defenders and rifled the winning goal past goal-keeper Bill Irwin.
"Now we know that Cruyff won't dribble through half out team to knock us out of the playoffs this season," Dloich said. "He'll do it for us."
Also eleated was Coach Gordon Bradley, who had watched the negotiations go back and forth the last couple of weeks just as they did when he was the Cosmos coach chasing Pele five years ago.
"It was Pele all over again," said Bradley. "One day, yes; the next day, no. Now, we are a genuine Soccer Bowl contender."
The Soccer Bowl will be played at RFK Stadium on Sept. 21. It may well have been the support shown by the Washington business community last fall when the city was pursuing the Soccer Bowl that convinced Werblin that there was enough soccer interest in the city to make it worthwhile to go after a Cruyff.
"I think that, combined with the improvement in attendance and the general feeling that this is becoming a soccer town, convinced Sonny," Danzansky said last night. "He had to see to believe. This town showed him."
Werblin, ecstatic at his coup, put it simply: "We have now turned this team from a member of the North American Soccer League into a genuine international attraction."
"Let's face it," said Dolich. "There have been questions in the past about the Garden's commitment to this franchise. Now no one can question the commitment."
Cruyff became a professional at age 17 and played professionally in both Holland and Spain. In 1978 he captained the Dutch World Cup team that advanced the World Cup team that advanced the Dutch World Cup title game. He has won championships in every league in which he has played.
A year age, when he was under contract to the Cosmos, the Diplomats had a chance to buy Cruyff and passed it up. Werblin said yesterday the asking price this time was lower and his feelings about the Washington franchise different.
"I think it's a very exciting thing for everyone, for the Garden and for Washington," said Werblin, 75, who had made his career by acquiring people like Joe Namath to build franchises around. I'm delighted it has all worked out this way."